La Rhumerie de Chamarel, Mauritius
In the fertile hills and valleys rolling across the Republic of Mauritius (Mauritius), an island nation in the Indian Ocean, off the East African coast, there stands a young distillery with ancient roots. Called La Rhumerie de Chamarel (Chamarel), the rum maker has developed a strong international brand identity and carved out a niche in the market for quality spirits.
Since its foundation in 2008, Chamarel has successfully entered the global beverages market – in part due to its robust branding and commercialization strategy – and established standards that match those of its international rivals. As of 2013, the distillery had expanded its operations to include a state of the art visitor center, a rum-tasting room, and a modern gourmet restaurant. At the same time, Chamarel had become an international award winner.
In part due to its location on a distinct island with a longstanding tradition for making spirits, Chamarel’s products have been able to stand out from those of its competitors. This terroir – the degree to which a product can be distinguished because of its specific geography or tradition – has been used by governments and businesses, including Chamarel, to promote producers and their goods.
As a spokesman for the company said, “The secret and emphasis of [Chamarel’s successful] rums relies on the unique sugarcane varieties [and] the unique micro-climate where we are located [–] the quality of our terroir is simply unique.”
Mauritius’ location gives it unique geo-climatic conditions – the country is made of four islands including Mauritius, the largest of the islands, and Rodrigues. Indeed, the country has weather patterns and soil quality that are conducive to growing a number of crops, especially sugarcane – the raw material for making rum.
The two seasons of the island – a warm and dry winter (May to November) and a hot and humid summer (November to May), annual average rainfall of 2,000 millimeters, and temperatures between 17°C and 27°C (with humidity often exceeding 80 percent) are ideal for tropical crops such as sugarcane.
Chamarel is located on a hill 300 meters above sea level and surrounded by rivers and streams on the south west part of the largest island – an area with its own micro-climate that is comparatively hot and humid and experiences lower than average rainfall for Mauritius.
The distillery, furthermore, has benefitted from establishing sugarcane plantations on the fertile soils of Mauritius – a volcanic island ideal for cultivating a number of crops, apart from sugarcane, such as pineapples, coffee and cotton.
Due to its sturdiness, sugarcane has thrived on the hillsides and plateaus of the country – 80 percent of Mauritius’ arable land is used to cultivate it. Thus aided by ideal geo-climatic conditions, Chamarel has seized the opportunity to cultivate the crop and commercialize its distinct and highly marketable taste.
In addition to the country’s terroir, Chamarel has benefited from the island’s long tradition of distilling spirits. Making alcohol in Mauritius can be traced back five centuries to the earliest European settlers – of Dutch origin – who introduced sugarcane plantations to the island.
During this period, a spirit known as arrack (a precursor to rum, it is a distilled alcoholic drink made of a sugarcane by-product called molasses) was made. When Dutch settlements on Mauritius were supplanted by French and then British administrations in the 18th century, sugarcane estates and arrack production expanded.
Among the earliest estates to be established on the island (in the 1790s) was that of Charles-Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel – a Frenchman after whom a mountain-top village, and the Chamarel distillery next to it, is named. For generations, members of the de Chazal de Chamarel family successfully grew and harvested a variety of plants including coffee, cotton, trees, and, eventually, sugarcane. As a result, the fortunes of the family expanded.
With Mauritius coming under sole British administration in 1810 and new land laws which reduced the size of estates (in the 1880s) and economic turbulence on the island (in the 1890s) ensuing, the family’s hold on the estate diminished. Devastated by political change and socio-economic turmoil, the de Chazal de Chamarel estate, though greatly reduced in size, remained – the estate had several plantations attached to it, even though it intermittently stopped making spirits in this period.
When Chamarel’s ownership changed in 1996, purchased by a private family, its new owners ensured the traditional knowledge for rum-making that the islanders (descendants of plantation workers from Asian, African and European origin) had developed, persisted. Indeed, the legacy of rum making and sugarcane planting in the area is such that traditional Mauritian music – called Sega – often reference the estate and village where the de Chazal de Chamarel’s plantation stood.
To make rum in the traditional way, sugarcanes are harvested by hand, pressed for their juice, fermented with yeast, blended in vats, distilled, aged in wooden casks and bottled in readiness for consumption. Chamarel, though a relatively young company, has successfully modernized and monetized this traditional knowledge and history of rum-making and led a new generation of distillers on the island.
In order to market its products both domestically and internationally, Chamarel has not only relied on the country’s terroir and long tradition for producing rum; the distillery has also developed quality products and relied on expert and professional staff. In addition, Chamarel has invested in marketing and commercialization strategies for the domestic and international market that have exploited Mauritius’ strong reputation for hospitality and tourism.
To ensure the quality of the raw materials used in its products, the distillery has cultivated three varieties of organic sugarcanes. These plants, moreover, are grown free of chemical fertilizers – the sugarcane is watered daily instead and nourished with natural fertilizers before being hand-picked (when ready) for milling.
Having reached maturity, the distillery’s sugarcane is harvested and immediately transferred – thus ensuring freshness – for a preparation process via cane shredders, where the plant’s outer layer is removed, and crushing mills, to extract its juice. Following the preparation process, the extracted pure cane juice (also called vesou) undergoes fermentation (where yeast and filtered water are added) and agricultural distillation. The latter process differs from traditional distillation – which relies on molasses, rather than pure cane juice only, to produce rum.
Distillation – where the alcohol content of cane juice (or molasses, in some cases) is separated from its water content via heating and cooling in distillation chambers – involves two methods: double-distillation and continuous or column distillation. At Chamarel, double-distillation (which derives its name from a reliance on two distillation chambers or alembics) involves heating cane juice at below 78.4 degrees and thereby producing alcohol vapor.
As the vapor rises and is separated from the juice (due to differential boiling points of water and alcohol), it hits a condenser that cools it. The first and last dregs of the cooled alcohol are removed at this point (as it is either too strong or too light in flavor) and the remainder fermented (via a process called second fermentation) with juice.
Also known as rough spirit (40 to 45 percent alcohol), these dregs are heated a second time after which a more concentrated rum (70 percent alcohol) can be attained. As the more concentrated form of rum is considered too strong, the brew is kept in a stainless steel vat for three months until its alcohol level reduces to 44 percent – which results in a white rum with a smooth texture – referred to as a double-distilled rum.
A separate kind of double-distilled rum, with an alcohol content of 42 percent, is also achieved – this kind of spirit is flavored with a variety of fruits and spices in accordance with Chamarel’s production standards. Also used at Chamarel, continuous or column distillation is similar to double-distillation, however, unlike in double-distillation, this process occurs in a single vessel.
In both processes, the rum is isolated and may also be kept in oak barrels for 18 months until golden rum is obtained – sometimes referred to as straw rum or rum paille; it has a silky texture and vanilla and oak taste.
Other straw rums, double-distilled, are kept in (smaller) barrels for three years minimum; these are subsequently labeled “old rum”. The entire distillation process, moreover, is overseen by a master blender. Not only does the distillery’s modern rum making practice ensure a natural, organic taste; it has attracted a growing number of customers from around the world who prefer high-end, quality spirits.
As of 2013, Chamarel made nine brands of rum including Very Old Rum (V.O, matured for three years in oak barrels, it has a smooth vanilla and caramel taste) and Gold Rum (matured for 18 months in oak barrels, it has a rich and subtle caramel taste with shades of vanilla). The distillery also produced premium white rums (single distillation, 50 percent alcohol), a vanilla liquer (a blend of rum and natural vanilla pods), and a coffee liquer (roasted coffee blended with rum).
In addition, the company has placed its products – as reflected in its top-end pricing plans and choice of high-end retailing outlets – within the niche market of international premiums rums. Indeed, the distillery deliberately limits its production capacity and distribution networks as part of a controlled brand development and placement strategy – the company is keen to ensure quality over quantity.
Further to producing quality rums and implementing a careful expansion strategy, Chamarel has developed strategies to consolidate the loyalty of old customers while gaining the custom of new ones – including via onsite product and brand promotion activities at the Chamarel estate.
To help promote and commercialize its products locally, Chamarel relied on a renowned local architect to create a state of the art rum-tasting facility complete with a souvenir shop that stocks the distillery’s products – as well as Mauritian-made crafts and gift items. A selection of the distillery’s rum-based cocktails can also be enjoyed at this facility – including Chamarel Shake Mojito (a cocktail made of gold rum with soda water, fresh mint leaves, simple syrup and fresh lemon).
Supplementary to rum-tasting at Chamarel, visitors can enjoy guided tours of the facility in English or French – the tours, which are run for half of the year, include visits to the distiller’s cellars as well as to tourist sites in the surrounding area. Guests can also visit Chamarel’s modern and upscale restaurant – called L’Alchimiste – and sample some of the country’s best cuisine, such as locally derived deer, duck, and wild boar, as well as a selection of the company’s spirits.
Managed by professional staff within the distillery’s tranquil surroundings (which are landscaped with wood, stone and water features), Chamarel’s quality services have taken advantage of Mauritius’ vibrant tourism industry – a sector that contributed over 70 percent of the nation’s GDP (2007). As a result, Chamarel has welcomed 15,000 visitors a month through its distillery and estate.
The distillery has also worked closely with local, national and international industry partners in order to raise awareness of its brands and products. In this regard, representatives from Chamarel have attended and participated in industry events such as rum fairs and conferences – in one event in 2013, the distillery provided a rum-cocktail making master class to a select group of industry professionals (including bar tenders) in Japan.
In the same year, Chamarel was one of hundreds of entities that participated in the Japan African Fair – an international exhibition in Yokohama, Japan, that showcased products and brands from Africa. Over 40,000 people visited the exhibitions each day and Chamarel’s rums were sold out. Some other industry events that the distillery has participated in are the Berlin Rum Festival and the Mauritius FIFA Congress – a gathering of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), a sports governing body – where Chamarel’s mojitos were served to attendees.
With a robust domestic and international marketing and commercialization strategy, the distillery has been able to enter new markets – including Japan and the European Union (EU) – while promoting its products and brands successfully. Chamarel – which is managed by L’Exil Ltée, a company based in Mauritius – had (in 2013) approximately 140 employees.
Having created a number of products and developed a reputation for quality, Chamarel has relied on the intellectual property (IP) system in order to protect its good name.
With a view to expanding into the EU, the distillery applied to trademark Le Rhum de Chamarel(2009) at the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM). In the same year, the company made a trademark application for Rhum Agricole de Chamarel also at OHIM.
Moreover, the rum maker protected its corporate identity in the EU via a trademark application for Chamarel (2010) at OHIM. Chamarel recognizes the importance of IP in allowing businesses to expand with confidence into new regional and international economic zones.
Inspired by a rich tradition for making rum on an Indian Ocean island, Chamarel has emerged on the international stage as a robust business with grand ambitions. In the process, the distillery has achieved business success and won a number of awards.
Chamarel’s premium gold rum won a Gold medal at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (2011) – a wine and spirits tasting competition with over 7,000 alcoholic beverages from 49 producer countries that was held in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. At the same event, the distillery’s silver white rum as well as its double distilled rum won a Silver medal in their respective categories.
Two years later, Chamarel’s Vanilla Liquer (35 percent alcohol) won yet another award for the company – a Bronze medal at the Rum Fair Paris (2013). In the same year, Chamarel had a gross income of 85 million rupees (approximately US$ 1.4 million) and celebrated its 5th anniversary.
The art of blending
Chamarel resurrected the virtually lost art and tradition of rum-making in Mauritius and thereby regenerated a much cherished industry. In the process, the distillery showed how a strategic branding and commercialization strategy – supported by IP assets – can open new markets for producers and their products. People from across the world, meanwhile, have enjoyed naturally made quality rums from an island country with a proud history for making spirits.